Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Combat Violence throughout, Bloody Images, and Language
Directed by: Michael Bay
Written by: Chuck Hogan
(based on the book 13 HOURS by Mitchell Zuckoff)
Starring: James Badge Dale, John Krasinski, Max Martini, Dominic Fumusa, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman & Toby Stephens
On September 11, 2012, tragedy struck in Benghazi. A vicious terrorist attack took place and has since led to much controversy, mourning, and the failure of a potential rebirth for the country of Libya. Of course, a movie would expectedly be made out of this story. One could only hope that whoever took on the cinematic portrayal of these intense events would be sensitive towards the heavy material and wouldn’t just turn the film into an over-the-top action flick with a political agenda. In a shocking twist of fate, Michael Bay demonstrated the former and didn’t do the latter. 13 HOURS might have a couple of heavy-handed flaws, but it’s a riveting film about heroes who did what was right in the face of seemingly impossible odds.
Six security contractors have been assigned to protect a small classified CIA base in Benghazi, Libya. When a U.S. Ambassador makes an impromptu visit to the country, it appears that the security team has even more work cut out for them. The 11th anniversary of 9/11 arrives and a fiery terrorist attack erupts onto the Ambassador’s compound. In spite of knowing very little about the situation and being instructed by their commander to stand down, the security team conducts an improvised rescue mission. The aftermath of this heroic confrontation leads to a hellish (seemingly endless) chaotic battle at the CIA compound. With no help in sight and hordes of militants arriving, the team of contractors and CIA agents must band together to survive the night.
Say what you will about Michael Bay, but the man has a knack for constructing action. Though most of his films appeal to juvenile crowds (being packed full of robots, explosions, and close-ups of sexy women), 13 HOURS is easily Bay’s most mature effort to date. In a refreshing turn of events, Bay keeps politics out of the proceedings and simply puts the audience through an emotional wringer of tension, action, and tragedy. The soldiers don’t know why militants are attacking the compound and we’re left in the dark beside them. This allows for many tense scenes in which they (and we) do not know who to trust. A number of the film’s best scenes arrive after repeated questions of “Are we expecting any friendlies?” I would never have believed that Michael Bay directed this story besides having seen his name in the credits and promotional material for this film. It’s intense and well-executed in terms of suspense and action, while simultaneously being respectful to the real-life heroes and events being portrayed on the screen.
As far as characters go, most of the performances are convincing and I felt a sense of genuine comradery amongst the six security contractors. Each of the six main actors comes off as a hardened veteran thrown into a chaotic situation, which was probably aided by having three of the actual survivors on set to help this film during production. Though I will admit the character development could be a tad better as we only see some forced backstories about each soldier having kids and a family waiting at home. It’s not that I didn’t care about these soldiers’ loved ones, I just feel that this could have been introduced into the proceedings in more compelling ways rather than repeatedly showing photos and video chats between the men and their families (one long sequence feels slightly cheesy).
The corny flaws don’t stop there though as Michael Bay can’t help but throw a few unnecessary lens flares into otherwise slick cinematography. Bay also compromises a couple of action sequences (mainly in the first half) by utilizing quick editing and shaky camera work. Still, the rest of the bloody combat sequences remain well-executed. There are explosions (which can always be expected from Bay’s work), but they never feel exploitative. Bay actually restrains himself during the first third of the fast-paced running time to hint at the growing situation in the background as the soldiers go about their dangerous daily work. This was a nice slow build up to the inevitable eruption of shit progressively hitting the fan for the last two-thirds of the film.
Sure, 13 HOURS has slow motion, lens flares, explosions, and a few messy clichés. However, these are minor gripes when you consider how tastefully and well-executed the majority of the film actually is. It’s not about politics or demonizing a religion. For the former, this is simply a true story of heroism and one long bloody battle to survive in a highly dangerous situation. For the latter, the film actually goes out of its way to show that most Muslims don’t side with insane terrorists. The result is a balanced, mature, and surprisingly great war film that should please crowds, move certain viewers to tears, and serve as an unforgettable experience…in spite of its faults. Between this and the criminally underrated PAIN & GAIN, it seems like Michael Bay is putting out of his best work ever in the 2010’s.